Using Multimedia in Teaching Contemporary Black Women Poets

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Poet Nikky Finney

This term, I have been teaching a new course on contemporary Black women poets. I developed my course as an intervention in a literary canon (and a college course catalog) where Black women are under-represented—perhaps particularly Black women poets, and definitely contemporary Black women poets. I also selfishly wanted to teach a course in which I could teach some of my favorite books. Most of all, I wanted students to get a sense of what Black women are writing about now, and how they’re writing about it. Because of this, I wanted the class to be very contemporary—so instead of beginning with the Black Arts Movement and going forward, as I think many classes like this would do, I decided to impose a ten-year radius on the books I chose for class. Thus the books we read could not have been published before 2007. I reasoned that that students could learn about the Black Arts Movement in another class, but might not have another chance to read, say, Ashley Jones’s 2017 collection Magic City Gospel. In limiting the books in this way, I wanted to explore a couple of questions: What does our current poetic moment have to say to our cultural and political moment? How do issues of subject and form and language in poets intersect with issues of gender and race now, rather than 20 or 30 or 40 years ago? These are a couple of questions we have been exploring this term.

Here are the books I ended up teaching (in this order) in our ten-week course:

  • Monica Hand, me & nina (2010)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Thrall (2012)
  • Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)
  • Erica Dawson, The Small Blades Hurt (2014)
  • Ashley Jones, Magic City Gospel (2017)
  • Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (2008)
  • Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (2011)
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • t’ai freedom ford, how to get over (2017)

(My original list of possible books for the course had about twenty more books on it! Let me know in the comments section if you’d like me to send you this list. This list represents a great deal of formal variety, which is the main reason I chose this particular slate of poets. There are also some other great choices here and here.)

A class like this is so different from the nineteenth century American literature courses I often teach. In those courses, our interactions with the authors are literary-critical and archival. There are established critical lenses we can look through, but what we can know about the writers themselves is limited to their works and to the archives they left behind (or didn’t, in many cases). In a course on contemporary poets, however, I knew that while our biggest challenge would be finding good critical sources, given that the work is so new, we would also have particular opportunities. We would be able to find resources that would give us the poets themselves, speaking aloud to us, reading their poems to us, and in some cases even directly answering our questions! It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that I would be making great use of multimedia in the classroom.

Video

Discussions of Black women’s invisibility have permeated the classroom all term long. I knew it would be powerful for all of my students, particularly my female students of color, not just to read but to see and hear Black women poets, so with this in mind, as I put the class together, I knew I wanted to emphasize the poets’ performance of their own poems. (An even more excellent idea, which I have not yet tried, is Howard Rambsy II’s idea about using the poets’ performances as primary texts! Thanks to fellow PALS blogger Shelli Homer for sharing Rambsy’s blog with me.). One thing poets take for granted (but that students may not always consider) is that the performance of our poems is important. Performance adds a layer of meaning to the poems printed on pages. Using video resources, then, is an obvious choice for a class on contemporary poets.

For example, as our class read Natasha Trethewey’s stunning poem “Miracle of the Black Leg,” from Thrall, we did not fully tap into the rage undergirding it until we watched this video of Trethewey reading the poem at Rutgers University:

After playing the videos, I would ask questions like, “What nuances did the poet bring out in the poem as she read it? What words did she emphasize? Where did she grow louder or softer, faster or slower? Where did you notice rhymes or changes in rhythm? What new things did you notice in the poem that you didn’t notice before? What surprised you about her reading of this poem?”

While most of what you will find online are videos of poets giving readings, you might also find, in some instances, poets who have created art videos of their poems. Claudia Rankine is the best example of this, since her “Situations” videos (collaborations with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas) are all available on her website. These are easy to find, but in my experience, students don’t go looking for them, so they are an excellent resource to bring into the class. Students who had imagined Claudia Rankine’s voice as loud (one student said, “I imagined her giving a spoken-word poetry delivery until we watched the video”) were surprised by her calm, even, and therefore exceptionally chilling delivery in the video for the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” from Citizen. (Go to “Situations” and choose #6 for the full video.)

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Poet Claudia Rankine

This video is one among many videos in which Rankine reads sections from Citizen and other works but does not appear in the video herself. The videos are, however, all intimately tied to the text of the poems. Watching these videos allowed us to go from a discussion of the poem’s text to a discussion of the many ways Citizen demands a discussion of how words and images interact.

I was able to find videos online of all of the poets on the syllabus giving readings, and I incorporated these videos into my daily lesson plans. Students were also responsible for leading discussions in pairs, and I was gratified to see that nearly all of them incorporated videos of the poets reading into their discussion-leading sessions.

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Poet t’ai freedom ford

Audio

Although students love having something to look at, don’t discount audio. There are some excellent poetry audio resources online. More and more poets are posting sound files of themselves reading poems on their websites. I’ll be playing some audio of t’ai freedom ford reading from her book how to get over in class this week, and since there’s no video, it will force the class to really focus on the words and the words only.

You might find other interesting audio online if you dig around. For example, when teaching Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, I found a 50-minute craft talk called “Boarding the Voyage.” In it, Lewis discusses her process in creating the long, experimental title poem.

I assigned this as homework one day, asking students to take notes as they listened and to come to class with a quotation from the craft talk they wanted to discuss, as well as the time at which the quotation occurred (so it would be easy for me to go to different spots in the lecture). They also had to tie the quotation from the craft talk to a part of the title poem. Students put the quotations and times on the board (there was definitely some overlap), we listened to the relevant portions, and then students would point us to portions in the poem they wanted to discuss.

lewis at cafe
Poet Robin Coste Lewis

The transcript of this is not available online; audio is the only format available. This is a good thing, even though it means as an instructor I had to listen to the craft talk three times, stopping many times to take notes, to be able to teach it. While this was time-consuming, it was also powerful. Lewis’s lyrical reading style mesmerized us as a class, making her words that much more powerful. Also, because we had to take notes on the talk, we listened much more carefully than we would’ve otherwise—always a good skill to work on.

Keep on the lookout for audio in unexpected places, too. One of my students, a classical musician, had recently attended a concert by a capella group Roomful of Teeth, which features an adaptation of Rankine’s “Stop-and-Frisk.” (Scroll down to listen to “You Are Not the Guy.”) This student shared this recording with the class when she led discussion on Citizen. None of us were prepared for our reaction to the music (I won’t spoil it for you), and we had a great discussion about how setting a poem to music can radically affect our experience of a poem.

Skype

In teaching this course, I wanted the students to have as much interaction with the poets as possible, but my budget only allowed me to bring one poet to campus for a reading. This is what Skype is for. I scheduled a Skype session with poet Erica Dawson, whose book The Small Blades Hurt we read in class. I know Erica, so it was easy for me to set this up, but even if you don’t know any poets personally, you can still make this happen.

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Poet Erica Dawson

If you’re teaching contemporary poets, you can always reach out to the poet via social media or a contact form on their websites (most poets are reachable by one or another of these avenues) and ask them to Skype with your class. If you have a tiny budget for poetry readings, you could offer a small honorarium for this. I always pay the poets a little bit for their time, but if you don’t have the budget for that you could ask anyway and see what they say. (Especially if you know the poet, or know someone who knows the poet.) There are three keys to a successful Skype: either 1) ask poets you know; 2) ask a poet who is a friend of a friend (and get the friend to help you set this up); or 3) ask younger or less famous poets who would have more time than, say, Claudia Rankine or Natasha Trethewey, and who would really appreciate the publicity. If you teach in a department with creative writers, use them as a resource to help you find poets!

I found a good way to structure the Skype was to do a brief reading plus questions. I asked Erica to read a couple of poems (I gave her the choice of what she wanted to read, but then she chose to take student requests, so the class voted on two poems for her to read). I also asked students to choose, close read, annotate, and prepare a question for Erica about a particular poem from The Small Blades Hurt. (I had students turn these in to me to ensure they did them!) This made discussion quite lively. This advanced preparation is key for a Skype session, I think, as otherwise there might be a lot of long, painful silences—boring for the poet and not helpful to the class, either!

Twitter

Now, I’m not on Twitter (or actually any social media), but of course my students are. In one class discussion about a Patricia Smith poem from Blood Dazzler, the class could not decide who the speaker of the poem was. We debated for about twenty minutes. Then finally one student asked, “Can I get out my phone and see if she’s on Twitter? And then just tweet her the question if she is?” I thought, why not? To our surprise, Smith responded to the tweet a few days later, confirming one of the three possible speakers we had been debating. The class loved this informal interaction with a famous poet, and it was a nice moment (since their research papers will be due soon) for me to reiterate that when you’re working with living poets, you have to get creative with tracking down information.

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Poet Patricia Smith

. . . or a good old-fashioned poetry reading

The last type of multimedia I’m advocating may not seem like media at all . . . although it’s the oldest poetry medium around, that of an oral reading. It’s where poetry began! There’s no substitute for the electricity generated in the room when a poet steps up to the mic and begins reading her work. This obviously requires a lot of planning ahead (I booked Ashley Jones a year in advance), but if this is financially possible for your department to arrange, I would highly recommend it.

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Poet Ashley M. Jones

If you are a creative writer, you may run a reading series yourself, as I do on my campus, or you may at least have a hand in planning each year’s roster of readers. If so, reach out to your literature colleagues as you plan, letting them know what poets you are considering (and who knows, they also might have ideas about poets for you to consider), as they might be interested in teaching these poets in their own classes. (For example, a couple of years ago, I brought poet John Murillo to campus. I taught his book Up Jump the Boogie in my creative writing class, and my colleague taught his book in his literary analysis class.) This kind of overlap is great because it exposes more students to the work of contemporary poets, and it also ensures a good turnout for the reading!

If you are not involved in scheduling poetry readings on your campus, find out from the creative writers in your department if there is a budget for bringing poets to campus, and if so, see if they would like to collaborate. Perhaps they have their reading list set for who they’re bringing to campus next year—perhaps there’s a poet on their list who would be perfect for a class you’re teaching. Alternately, perhaps they would be open to hearing from you about which poet(s) you might like to bring to campus. See if there might be room for a visiting poet to visit your literature class. I brought Ashley Jones to campus to work with both my creative writing class and this literature class on Black women poets I have been discussing in this post. Both sets of students flipped out when Ashley Jones came to class—there’s no other way to put it.

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I have loved teaching this class, and I can tell that really seeing these poets has been meaningful to my students. You can of course use any or all of these approaches when teaching any contemporary poets—not just Black women poets. If you teach any of these poets or try any of these tricks, let me know how it goes!

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This blog post is written in loving memory of my friend, the amazing poet Monica Hand.

Reflecting on, Reframing, and Revising Approaches to Texts: Teaching M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!*, Again

As I sit here designing and prepping for a course I have not taught before, I reflect, as always, on previous texts, pairings, and themes I have used in the past. The course is Critical Thinking, Composition, and Literature; in other words, the choices for texts and critical approaches are endless. Its course aims also align with a writing about literature course I have taught in the past. My initial thoughts go to that course and the current historical moment where language is being stripped of meaning by political figures with more vigor than ever before, though definitely not a new practice.

This past December, I took part in a short series of posts about treating literature as political where I reflected on my approach to teaching generally and my approach to teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt was an easy way into that conversation because he provides a traditionally structured fictional narrative that is specifically depicting government corruption while illuminating racially motivated shortcomings in journalism. I am not suggesting that Chesnutt’s novel is in anyway simple; my students struggled with it for a variety of reasons. It is a text that students can open and tangibly point to a passage they deem political. This is not the case with many pieces of literature. Their political elements may be harder to see or, in the case of writers like Ishmael Reed, may require a knowledge of historical events and cultural moments readers may not possess. Moving beyond the content, the political can also be present in the form. This creates distance between students and the political elements of form because there isn’t necessarily something explicit for students to point to as political.

For instance, what would you do when presented with this poem?

Screenshot (76)

Screenshot (77)

More importantly, what questions would you pose to students to help them enter this poem? (This is the opening poem to an experimental collection that gets increasingly difficult to decipher as it progresses.) Once students have entered the poem, how do we help them understand why the form is political? Helping students understand form as a political statement is not the same as telling them why form is a political statement. Showing students how form becomes political is the task.

I first taught, Tobago born, Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip a few years back in the same class I taught Chesnutt which was composed of both majors and non-majors. Her expeZong!rimental poetry collection Zong! (in which the above poem appears) was challenging for students, as I suspected it would be; it was, and still is, challenging for me. I don’t pretend to hold any answers to it which is part of what makes it so much fun for me to teach. This is also one of the purposes of the text: How do we make meaning out of the slave trade? There is something much more genuine when I don’t have a certain reading of a text to lead students through. The classroom discussions turned into a series of “what if” approaches as we played with the text. For those unfamiliar with Zong!, blogger Wandy Felicita provides a fairly succinct description of the text and its cultural/historical context and get yourself a copy.

My experience teaching Philip’s Zong! didn’t have any moments that would have made it into another edition of our teaching fails. ZongWhy fix it if it isn’t broke? Rethinking my approach to teaching the collection comes from a desire to get even more from the text than before. Last time, we only tackled “Os,” the literal bare bones of the collection. This time, I also want to move though the remaining sections “Sal” (salt), “Ventus” (wind), “Ratio” (rain), “Ferrum” (iron), and “Ebora.” It is also motivated by the fact that the summer course I am prepping meets three hours a day, four days a week. Thinking about how much further we can get when not limited to the 50 min class session fills me with vision. (In case you were wondering–because of course you were!–to the right is a an example of one of the 50 pages that make up “Ferrum.”)

Managing the Supplemental Materials

Philip includes supplemental materials at the end of the text: the court case decision, a glossary of terms, and excerpts from the diary she kept while writing the collection. Each of these pieces can be used as a tool to understanding her project. They provide insight and show the evolution of her work. Being an experimental text, however, can also lead to the over reliance on these supplemental materials. This over reliance combined with, or perhaps caused by, student anxiety surrounding experimental poetry results in students coming up with the same reading of every poem in the collection. Every discussion about every poem boils down to “Philip said she was doing X, well that is what this poem does.”

I appreciate the supplemental materials, but they serve as those little kid water wings that give parents and kids a false sense of security in swimming pools and, as trained swim instructors like myself adamantly argue, increase the risk of child drownings. Part of the work of teaching this text is convincing students to take those water wings off and swim without them. I don’t want to entirely disregard Philip’s framework for Zong!, so I respect her supplemental materials as I pull students away from them.

First, I use the supplemental materials to show why we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily. Philip’s approach to her project changed between the first section and the following ones because she was too limited. The first section is comprised solely of words that appeared in the one page court ruling on the case. By the second section, she has moved on, taking liberty to chop those words up and use any part of a word to construct new words. I suggest to my students that the same is true for us. The court case document was initially helpful for our understanding of the project of the collection, but after that, it becomes as much of a hindrance for our understanding as it did for Philip.

Second, I ask students questions that slowly pull them away from the supplemental materials. Here are a few from my series of leading questions:

A piece of the whole: I try to zoom students in by asking them to think about each poem serving a different purpose to get us to her main aim. “If her large project is about how language fails to articulate the atrocities aboard the Zong, the following court case, its disappearance from history, and the slave trade as a whole, what piece of that is represented in ‘Zong #[insert poem number here]’?”

“The Death of the Author”: While I don’t go quite as far as Barthes, I do encourage students to question our reliance on the author’s statements by asking them to assess her proposed goals. “Even though Philip tells us what she was trying to do, it doesn’t mean she has successfully done it. Let’s say we are arguing that a poem or the collection does something entirely different, what would that be?”

There are many other questions and ways of challenging student reliance on the supplemental materials. My experience is that students’ discomfort with the experimental nature of this collection will make them grab hold and not let go of anything that helps them make sense of it. This leads to a fun game I like to play with the poems.

The What if…? Game

The “What if…?” game is really about teaching students how to engage with experimental poetry. Here are some of our “What if…?”s:

The visual: We look at the poems and ask what the form or layout on the page encourages us to do with it. “In some of Philip’s Os poems there is a pull between line breaks and columns. What if we read the poem from top to bottom, as columns, instead of from left to right?” This approach still respects Philip’s project and challenges students to experiment as readers, similarly to Philip experimenting as a writer.

The aural: We play with voice. Going back to “Zong #1” pictured above. “What if there are multiple speakers to this poem? How does that change the impact of the poem? What if they are all saying this together at the same time? What if it is being said in rounds, like when little kids sing the ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ song?” As a class, we try various readings of the poem. We do this with many of the Os poems—often playing with the white space on the page, often changing the number of speakers, sometimes a call and response style.

The decisions we make in our “What if..?” empowers students and loosens their grip on the supplemental materials as they start forming their own understandings. We did this a few times, but teaching it again, I would do a lot more of this because of its success.

 Language and My Old and New Supplemental Materials

As I am returning to teach this text again, but for a course with slightly different aims, I am keeping many of my earlier practices as outlined above and bringing in some new pieces to help us get through some of our anxieties about experimental poetry.

When I previously taught this text, I had students work with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. We looked at some of the maps together to correct or filling blanks left from their previous education on the Middle Passage. I also asked them to explore some of the other features on the database and write a brief explanation of what they did and what they discovered. We also listened to Philip read from her collection.

Two additional texts I am bringing in as lenses for approaching Philip’s collection are Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize speech and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Both of these get at the issues of language and form that my students struggled with. We will be starting with Morrison’s speech, and then we will move onto Lorde’s essay collection before beginning Zong! Morrison and Lorde will work to bring students into the conversation about the political in language use and forms of writing. In this way, they will come to Philip’s collection with a broader scope of where and how her work can be positioned in the African American literary tradition and among black women writers.

Unexpected, but Temporary Roadblock When Teaching Zong! to Majors

As I mentioned above, the course was comprised of majors and non-majors, roughly 1/3 majors to 2/3 non-majors (but there were a few who have since converted). I bring this up because it impacted my experience teaching the text. The experimentation with form pushed my English majors too much, and they hit a wall. They struggled to get anywhere with the poems. My non-majors, however, were ready to go wherever the collection and our discussions took us. Reflecting on this difference and the statements my majors did make, the opposing reactions to the collection came from a different knowledge base about poetry. My majors had begun taking the survey courses in early British and early American literature. They had much stricter rules for poetry and how to approach poems than their classmates. This disrupted their ability to meet Philip’s on her terms and manifested in a strong resistance to her work. Because it was so challenging and what they had previously learned about poetry did not prepare them to engage with her, they got mad and disqualified it as both poetry and worthy of study. We got through it, but it took a lot of challenging those previous assumptions and having them consider how we moved from 13th century writing style to what we have now in the 21st century: Experimentation!

*Note: This poetry collection came onto my radar in 2012 during my participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Teaching African American Literature,” held at Penn State. My teaching approaches were inspired and developed from conversations about this text that took place during those three weeks.